Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: The Player (1992): Hollywood Conventions & Western Civilization

*Warning: Spoilers Ahead*

Director Robert Altman revitalized his career after box office disappointment Popeye (1980) did not meet studio anticipation, with 1992’s The Player. Supposedly, Altman did not want to make The Player. He wanted to do a film based on Raymond Carver short stories called Short Cuts, but the project lacked the funds until after the success of The Player. In an interview with the Criterion Collection in 1992, Altman speaks on his linear movement as a director. He demonstrates with arm movements that the audience is doing a sort of loop around his linear movement forward, and when they hit— that means a successful movie. Altman, as an auteur, saw all his projects as equal in quality. By considering all of these projects equal, he demonstrates a dedication to his craft and that he did not believe that success and money determined the quality of work. With the Player, starring Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill, Altman continues his tradition of taking a singular place as a microcosm of the United States and Western Civilization. Griffin Mill is a Hollywood executive producer who kills a writer and gets away with it. The classic Hollywood happy ending, and the good guy vs. bad guy classical Hollywood narrative conventions, are just some of what Altman tinkers with in the 124-minute runtime. In the same interview, Altman states, “I do not believe there is such a thing as an all bad guy and an all good guy.” This is in reference to Griffin Mill, the character who commits a heinous crime but is ultimately untouchable. We follow him and even sometimes root for him even though he is a murderer. In The Player, Robert Altman purposely subverts and uses the traditional Hollywood standard and satirizes the more current “blockbuster trend” and studio system to skewer the problems of the United States and Western Civilization.

Altman once stated, “I don’t think The Player is a metaphor; I do not think The Player is a skewering of Hollywood. I think Hollywood is a metaphor for the cultural problems with Western Civilization.” Like many of Robert Altman’s classic works of film, such as Nashville and M*A*S*H, he continued his auteurist way of using specific areas as microcosms. Right in the opening shot of The Player, we get what Altman describes as the only thing academics or scholars will remember about a film. The single continuous shot that Altman and the crew constructed is a long take that incorporates dolly and crane shots to reveal the information about the setting. A big studio building says: “MOVIES now more than ever!” while an assistant goes to get the mail. The shot is about eight minutes and goes from when Griffin Mill arrives at the studio in his Range Rover to bouncing around different conversations in the studio to the blinds outside Mill’s office. In traditional Altman style, he allows an assortment of characters to dominate this scene rather than just going straight to Mill. This sequence is a display of atmosphere; it lets the commotion in a busy Hollywood studio lead us to the story. The sequence also highlights the Hollywood films of the past by opening the film with characters speaking about different aspects of filmmaking and classic filmmakers. Altman employs those same techniques as the characters are speaking. The security guard Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) speaking, “the pictures they make these days are all MTV.. cut cut cut cut, the opening shot of Welle’s Touch of Evil was six and half minutes long… he set up the whole picture with that one tracking shot.” Stuckel’s description is telling of what Altman wanted to do. He wanted to make a self-referential movie about movies. A film to remind us we are watching a film while also showing the flaws in how business gets done in these studios. This studio system acts as a microcosm to any other business in the United States or Western country. Altman saw the film business as a business first and foremost, “The film business is really no different from the museum business, the newspaper business, or the television business, or the insurance business…” 

Photo by Spelling International/Kobal/Shutterstock (5881676j) Tim Robbins The Player – 1992 Director: Robert Altman Spelling Films International USA Scene Still Comedy The Player

As the shot progresses, we see Griffin Mill going through his daily routine at the studio. He hears pitches and chooses to greenlight them or not. In this particular sequence, he hears a pitch from American actor, screenwriter Buck Henry who pitches The Graduate Part II. The irony of this is that, when we look at them through the blinds, we only see part of these two characters; this style of shooting, or Altman’s way, will again be brought up in a later scene. The later scene is of executives arguing about a director’s choice of shooting a scene outside through a window that obscures the actors. That scene occurs in a studio screening room, which shows Altman commenting that executives may feel hostility toward his style in The Player. The way Buck Henry pitches The Graduate Part II effectively satirizes the pitch-process. It introduces us to what works in Hollywood. To bank off The Graduate’s prestige with a sequel, or to tack a happy-ending at the end is what works. Buck Henry, who went into that situation improvising his lines, displays Altman’s style. Altman was a fan of letting his actors improvise or add their own lines, so with The Player, he allows them to go off-script. For Tim Robbins, who was in a theater group at the time, it gave him an opportunity to experiment with his range. Robbins even comments on how actors loved working with Altman. As the long take moves to the mailroom, we get an extreme close-up of a postcard, reading: “Your Hollywood is dead,” with many of the most iconographic stars of classic Hollywood on the card. This card, and many other cards, all hand-written by Altman, propels the narrative to the blackmail and the murder scene. So with this tracking shot, Altman immerses us with the studio experience while also showing us the falsity of Hollywood. We even get a moment where a Japanese tour group is moving through the studio lot. This could represent the foreign market and simultaneously comment on how much of a tourist destination and cash machine Hollywood is. 

For Altman, his intent is direct: “The system I was skewering was the system of the United States of America, and most of Western civilization that is mainly thrust and based on greed and what we teach our children.” Altman sees greed as one of the fundamental flaws of Western civilization, which he explores heavily in The Player. Tension is shown through the old executive, Griffin Mill, who hasn’t made a hit in a while and fights against his replacement. The fresh Fox executive, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) goes for the job and Mill’s self-preservation is what foregrounds the murder of writer David Kahane. We see that Mill just keeps winning, even with the anchor of the murder around his neck. Self-preservation comes into play as he outplays Levy by getting him to greenlight a project with no stars and no Hollywood ending. Mill retains his position as the true player by saving Larry Levy’s movie. Earlier in the film, there is a telling scene where Mill says, “Can we stop talking about Hollywood for a minute? We are all educated here,” they all, including Mill, burst into laughter. This is just one example of how the system is self-centered, greedy, and unfeeling. In terms of the Hollywood player, education is meaningless. Another scene telling of power dynamics is when Altman films a sex scene between Mill and June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) in full close-up. Tim Robbins stated in an interview that it made for a much more interesting scene. Scacchi did not want to show her naked body on screen. Altman, respectful of her wishes, filmed in close-up, which presents a primal, animalistic passion. A final scene that very much expresses the notion of greed is when Mill jokes about killing the writer. He says that now that he killed the writer, they might as well find out how to get rid of the directors and actors too. This tells us that Hollywood is a ruthless business, and the system is not first and foremost about art. Altman is explicitly saying that in America, making money is more important than artistic integrity.

Altman inverts more Hollywood conventions for The Player. He plays against the star genre system. He chose to toy with real-life Hollywood by casting sixty-five actors and writers in the film as themselves. Furthermore, he decided to have most of these stars play background characters or characters with a single line. For example, Altman has a deep focus shot when Griffin Mill is dining with the head of the studio in the background while Burt Reynolds is eating in the foreground. We slowly zoom into Tim Robbins’ character, and Reynolds disappears from the film. Other than current stars, Altman litters the film with photographs and images of stars and films of the past. An example of this is an extreme close-up into a photo of Hitchcock and the earlier postcard of Humphrey Bogart holding a pistol. B-movie posters are also in the studio’s interior offices, which immerse us in the Hollywood atmosphere. Altman’s play with genre is another facet of satirizing the Hollywood system. Moments in the film, such as the murder of the writer, have a noir feel. The costuming for the film is iconographic to the noir. The suits they chose for Robbins are different in most scenes, and his office and the Pasadena Police department look noirish.  Mill standing outside Gudmundsdottir’s home, staring at her through the blinds as they speak on the phone, also feels noirish. The way the detective trails Mill is also characteristic of the pursuit in a film noir. The scene where Kahane watches Bicycle Thief and the drowning sequence has noirish atmospheres through low-key lighting. The use of the noir and romance are strategically done to be in conversation with the films of the past. The moment when Mill, in a low angle shot in his black suit, tells Gudmundsdottir the qualities of a Hollywood film that sell, “Suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, and happy endings, mainly happy endings.” All of these qualities are in this film, but not in the traditional Hollywood sense. Altman’s knowledge of the system is on display in this hot spring scene, and the phrase “you need to know the rules before you break them” is too.

The Player is a film for the fans and the critics of Hollywood. As his interview was coming to a close, Altman resolutely said, “I have to laugh a little bit when people say, ‘Oh, it is too inside. Only the people in Hollywood are really going to get it.’ It’s just quite the opposite of that, of course. People in Hollywood still haven’t got it.” As a critique of Western Civilization, the film takes the most recognizable and profitable facet of American culture as the microcosm. Inverting or removing the star and genre conventions that someone, or the characters in the film, would argue are essential to market a film. When we screen the test film with the Hollywood execs, we realize the true business of Hollywood. Both Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis and a happy ending are now in the film meant to be an artistic piece of truth. Artistic integrity is out, and the player just plays the game that was set for them. In the final sequence, the blackmailing writer reveals that Mill killed the wrong writer and we just finished the writer’s film. The film ends with a very expressionistic scene of Mill coming back to his wife, Gudmundsdottir, with colorful flowers all over the set with star-lighting. This is a very traditional and campy Hollywood ending; however, since Mill murders her husband early on, this is not traditional at all. This finale tells us precisely what Altman sees as a fundamental problem with the United States and Western Civilization; that society is built to let the wealthy, powerful and those who play in the system win in the end.

— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.


Christian’s Bio:

Christian is a Senior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.”  In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavetes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mizoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.


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